Director: Alexander Payne. Paramount/Blue Lake Media/Bone Fide Productions/Echo Lake (15)
Cast & Crew
Producers: Albert Berger, Ron Yerxa.
Writer: Bob Nelson.
Camera: Phedon Papamichael.
Music: Mark Orton.
Sets: J. Dennis Washington.
Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Bob Odenkirk, Stacy Keach, Mary Louise Wilson, Rance Howard, Tim Driscoll, Devin Ratray, Angela McEwan.
Old, infirm and fond of a drink, Woody Grant (Dern) is sent a form by a magazine company telling him he has won $1 million. Ignoring his families please that it is a ruse to get him to stump up for an expensive subscription, he insists on walking across several states to collect his winnings. His estranged son David (Forte) decides to drive him, ostensibly so the two can spend time with each other and meet up with their grasping relatives.
Slow-burning is the watch phrase here as Payne continues to dissect and examine the psyche of the male menopausal (About Schmidt, 2002 and Sideways, 2004). Here, it is Dern’s opportunity to shine in a rare leading man role as an old man searching for meaning and something to aspire to in an otherwise torpid, dull life.
Slow is perhaps the wrong word to attach to this film. The opening 15 minutes certainly amble along, as if it has taken on the shuffling gait of its lead character, but the whole atmosphere of the film and the world it chronicles runs at a different pace to the world outside it.
Payne has deliberately reduced the action to a crawl; purposeful and calm, he concentrates his story with long, lingering shots of the scenery and buildings of these almost desolate northern and mid-west states, focusing his attention on the mundane, where nothing seems to happen.
Contemplative is a better description but the almost relaxing state that Nebraska instills is as big a red herring as Woody’s unquestioning belief in the veracity of his fortune. Nebraska works by stealth and has a few quiet punches up its sleeve. The salty, coarse frankness of the dialogue complements this.
The excellence of the playing stems from the brutally honest way this family interacts with each other and the riotously funny way they express themselves. Dern’s taciturn lead is wonderfully nuanced and observed, a half crippled walk, inquisitive eyes and restless, agitated demeanour. When Forte questions him about his past and how he came to marry his mother and have children, his response is hilarious: “I wanted to screw. She’s Catholic, I figured we’d at least bang a couple of you out”. The film is full of these laugh out loud moments of deadpan revelation and discovery as an essentially barren family existence is slowly blown apart and discussed.
Incredibly, Dern has received only one Oscar nod before (Best Supporting Actor for Coming Home, 1978) but given the current buzz around this performance, he might grab another one and this time for the leading category.
Despite the alzheimic charm he imbues, he is outclassed by the delightfully named Squibb as his vituperative, brutally-honest-and-then-some, but ultimately loving and devoted wife. She is nothing less than a gem as a woman who says exactly what is on her mind, usually as she is thinking it and leaves a few images in the memory long after the film has finished (lifting up her skirt at a relative’s grave to “show him what he’s been missing” being one highlight).
Forte manages to keep his above the parapet of these two to avoid being completely neglected as the supposedly world-wise and intelligent son whose eyes are opened wide by the revelations that come out as his road-trip progresses. There is a wonderful gallery of grotesque relatives and locals in support, including Howard (movie mogul Ron’s dad) as Dern’s monosyllabic brother who suddenly jolts into life when he hears of the windfall about to land in his sibling’s lap. Several other residents of the town where Payne filmed are used to help keep a more realistic, local flavour to the performances.
Keach is slimily opportunistic as Dern’s former business partner, a man who literally smells money in the air whenever Dern is present.